Working to Restore Bird Habitat, I Carry On Traditions That Were Meant to Be Erased

Indigenous Peoples’ Day is a chance to celebrate the diversity and resilience of our country’s original inhabitants, whose long-overlooked ecological knowledge can help guide conservation today.

The 1893 World’s Fair, held in Chicago, celebrated the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the Americas. To support the Columbian theme, city leaders raised statues of the explorer to honor what was widely regarded as his discovery and the subsequent conquest of a wild and empty continent—a feat also embodied in this booming city built on drained wetlands and cut-up prairie.

Simon Pokagon, a Potawatomi scholar from the southern Great Lakes, didn’t buy into this narrative. At the fair, which lasted for six months and attracted more than 27 million visitors, Pokagon handed out an essay printed on birch bark. “In behalf of my people, the American Indians,” it opened, “I hereby declare to you, the pale-faced race that has usurped our lands and homes, that we have no spirit to celebrate with you the great Columbian Fair now being held in this Chicago city, the wonder of the world.” He saw that the “fowls of the air withered like grass before the flame” of colonial powers. Birds and other animals were “shot for love of power to kill” and left to rot. “Thus our inheritance was cut off,” Pokagon wrote, “and we were driven and scattered as sheep before the wolves.”

In Pokagon’s eyes, to make Columbus a central figure in Chicago’s story was a further betrayal of the Indigenous people who lived there for millennia, and the birds and wildlife who shared the region’s extensive wetlands. Instead, there is a deeper story to be told about this region’s past and its original inhabitants—one that can help us live here responsibly today and create a more sustainable future. As a citizen of the Miami Tribe of Oklahoma, a people who call Chicago and much of what is now Illinois and Indiana our homelands, I strive to tell this story. And as the wetland restoration manager for Audubon Great Lakes, this story is, for me, one with birds at its heart.  

“Chicago” is derived from Indigenous names for this area of immense wetlands and slow-moving rivers. To the Miami it was šikaakonki, a place to gather wild leeks. Other Algonquian-speaking peoples had similar names for this place. My ancestors helped to steward these wetlands and the birds that lived in them. They harvested vegetation, such as cattails and lilies, for food and materials for furnishings and shelter. They burned wet prairies to thin vegetation and improve their hunting of waterfowl and other marsh birds. Coupled with our cultural values that prevented overharvesting, these activities helped to maintain wetland diversity vital to the marsh bird populations.

In today’s industrialized Chicago, I carry on the tradition. Like my ancestors, I use fire and other tools to restore biodiversity in the same wetlands they managed, which today are threatened by invasive species, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change. As the birds that I work to protect reveal themselves through my binoculars, I hear the stories my community still tells of these creatures. I see our artwork, which demonstrates our awe and admiration for our bird relatives. I’m reminded of the way my tribe’s land-use practices kept habitats healthy and sustainable, practices informed by careful observations of phenological connections—the way that seasonal changes in weather and the life cycles of living beings become synchronous.

This traditional ecological knowledge, gathered over centuries, describes plants and animals not as lesser beings to be manipulated, but as relatives from whom we learn and grow, and who we help in return. Living in a good way means maintaining that balance of relationships, keeping an eye on the well-being of plants and animals as a reflection of our own. As a result, our languages, our stories, our agricultural practices, and our calendars are all interrelated, born of lessons learned through generations of careful and consistent ecological observations of our homelands.

Birds play a significant role in Indigenous knowledge because they are compelling and familiar figures on the landscape. Their responses to subtle changes in weather and habitat conditions were as apparent to my ancestors as they are to today’s climate or migration scientists. The second month of my tribe’s lunar calendar—aanteekwa kiilhswa, or crow moon—occurs when American Crows begin to mate, signaling one of the earliest transitions of winter into spring. At this time, we know maple sugaring should be at its peak, as slightly warmer weather encourages trees to burst with life. The following month is cecaahkwa kiilhswa, or Sandhill Crane moon, which denotes further spring transitions as the cranes, our community symbol, reappear. Then comes wiihkoowia kiilhswa, the whip-poor-will moon, when these strange birds return to our homelands. It marks the final spring transition and the time to plant our first crop of corn. We even say that the Eastern Whip-poor-will’s call sounds, in our language, like “plant it!”

While I consider myself a birder, I recognize that the history of birding mirrors this country’s colonial past. As white settlers undermined and devalued Indigenous knowledge systems, people like John James Audubon came to the United States to “discover” and claim to document for the first time North American birds that my ancestors already knew well. Today’s birders likewise tend to seek out the new and unusual. Like any other birder, I revel in learning how to identify new birds by observing their behavior and delicate features. But I don’t maintain a life list—I see those running tallies of birds one has witnessed and identified as an expression of a colonial concept of acquisition.

Indigenous communities, in contrast, tend to carefully observe the regular and familiar birds of their landscape as symbols of their unique, multilayered cultural connections. Seeing šinkiphsa, or American Coot, year after year may not be so exciting to some birders. But whenever I encounter one, I think of the role they play in one of my favorite stories of my tribe, and the resilience it took for my ancestors to pass these stories on to future generations. A relationship with familiar birds is important to Indigenous communities. It’s proof of our connection to the land. 

This vast cultural knowledge is the “inheritance” that Pokagon warned Indigenous peoples were losing. Even within his lifetime, such observations and relations with birds had become more difficult to maintain. By that point Indigenous communities had already experienced hundreds of years of aggression against our traditional ways of life and self-sufficiency. We were forcibly driven from our lands; in 1846 my ancestors were removed from the southern Great Lakes to Kansas, and later to Oklahoma. This forced relocation and the destruction of our natural resources denied us of our traditional harvesting, trading, and migration routes. Cultural and spiritual practices were outlawed, and languages—hundreds of them—for all intents were banned. The threads of our knowledge systems frayed.

But that knowledge wasn’t lost. Today it’s being rewoven into communities across the continent. Cultural and linguistic revitalization has become a priority across Indian Country. My tribe had no fluent speakers in the middle of the 20th century, but today a generation of youth are using their language. In some instances, their first words are in Miami rather than English. Tribal communities are exercising sovereignty rights for cultural harvesting and stewardship—rights not granted by state or federal governments but maintained since time immemorial—and playing key roles in conservation and climate adaptation efforts.

At the same time, broader social changes are making American culture more inclusive of Indigenous voices. There’s a growing push across the country to recognize the second Monday in October not as Columbus Day—a holiday concocted to honor a man who never even set foot on North America—but as Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a celebration of the continent’s deeper history and diverse tribal cultures.

Chicago’s leaders haven’t yet agreed to recognize this holiday, but change is coming. Here, as across the country, Black and Indigenous activists this summer led demonstrations for racial justice. Soon after the protests, the city removed its three statues of Columbus, two of which dated back to that World’s Fair 127 years ago. Their views no longer obscured by these monuments to a false past, perhaps more people will begin to see the true history of the land.